Tag Archives: climbing

Bewitched, Bothered and Benighted

Trip Report: Ha Ling Peak, Northeast face


We climbed the opposite side but there aren’t any pictures of it that are out of copyright.

This is the story of the time my friend Phillip and I got stranded for seven dark, cold hours on a tiny ledge 820 feet up the face of a mountain with no camping gear and only one coat between us.

The previous day, I had MCed a wedding at the Calgary Zoo. Glenn and Gianna: old friends, wonderful people. I got through it with more grace than many who know me might expect. Throughout that weekend’s various rehearsals, preparations and ceremonies, I managed to scrounge up more charm than I’ve generally been able to summon for the past several years. And at the reception, where I actually mattered, I sufficed to such an extent that by the end of the evening, members of both families were buying me drinks.

So, by the time the celebrations drew to a close and the crowd began to file out, I was in a moderate state of euphoric disarray. Glenn’s mother, who I had only met the previous day, stage managed me out of the venue — the zoo’s lovely conservatory, with a room full of butterflies — and I taxied back to the hotel along with the newlyweds. Back in my room, I flopped down on the bed, bathing in the dopamine/adrenaline chemical bath brought on by the booze, the festivities and the exhilaration of public speaking.

I panic sobered immediately when I realised I’d left all of my shit at the zoo. My computer, my coat, my backpack, my suit bag — everything but what I had on my person.

It was 1:30 in the morning.

I high-tailed it back down to the lobby, darted outside, tore open the door of the first cab I saw, and slurred at the driver: “CAN YOU TAKE ME TO THE ZOO???” Then I noticed the (rather startled) couple who were still sitting in the backseat, paying for their ride. Sheepishly, I waited on the sidewalk for them to disembark, thinking about how this evening had taken a turn, and how I wished we could go back to twenty minutes ago.

I got in the cab with a very indulgent driver who drove me multiple times around the perimeter of the zoo while I scanned, drunkenly and in vain, for the security gate that I knew would let me in. Eventually, I threw in the towel and asked the driver to take me back to the hotel. Like a true gentleman, he offered to waive the fee, so I tipped him even more generously.

Back in my room once again, I texted Phillip. I knew he’d be up, because he works night shifts and is Batman. Our plan had been for him to drive from Edmonton to Calgary in the wee hours, pick me up at 6:00 AM and head to Canmore to climb a mountain: something that I had never done. But, since I’d need to get in touch with security at the zoo, determine whether my things were where I left them, determine whether I’d even left my things where I thought I had, and deal with who knows what other delays, we decided to push our departure from Calgary back until noon, which suited me fine. I had no desire to be up in four hours time.

Morning came; I felt about as good as you can expect. I called zoo security first thing when I woke up, and they found my things immediately. Blessed relief. On the other hand, now I was waiting for Phillip for no reason. I ate a slow, shitty breakfast at the bad Starbucks in the hotel lobby. Phillip arrived, and we retrieved my belongings from zoo security (which was very easy to find when sober) without any further hassle.

Off we went to Canmore.

Allow me a brief aside to tell you some things about Phillip. My friends in Vancouver have never met Phillip, and they love to joke that he isn’t real. He’s my imaginary friend, they say. My recurring, vivid hallucination. My tulpa. This is, of course, nonsense. But I can see why they would seize on this theme. If I were to imagine a human into existence, that human would be Phillip. He is a ridiculous person: less a human being than a fictional character who somehow metastasized into reality from a strange novel I wrote in my sleep.

Phillip and me at the foot of Ha Ling. Photoshop courtesy of a person trying to drive me out of my mind.

I first met Phillip in grade five, when he transferred to my school. The first words he ever said to me, just before recess on his first day, were “come with me, Matthew, and you’ll go far.” I have tended to heed that advice ever since. And while there have been occasional consequences, I’ve generally found that going along with Phillip’s schemes and stratagems leads to excellent stories.

Once in grade eight, Phillip suggested that I should curl up on a folding couch and allow him to fold me into it. So I did. And I got stuck in that couch. Phillip did his level best to haul me out, and eventually succeeded, but I was trapped and immobile inside a sofa for what felt like an hour. (It definitely wasn’t an hour.)

Another time, in grade twelve, Phillip and I were scrambling up a cliff on the banks of the Athabasca River in our hometown of Fort McMurray. This was not proper climbing and involved no equipment. Nothing like what we were about to undertake in Canmore. But it was certainly risky because that cliff on the Athabasca was essentially made of tar sand. We’d climbed up and down this cliff many times before without incident. But this time, Phillip suggested a steeper, alternate route. He led, I followed, he slipped on the silt, and I caught the debris. As I fell, I fractured a bone in my left hand. That is both my favourite story from high school and the reason I am not an acclaimed concert pianist today. (I say that with maximum facetiousness, but I did end up studying the trumpet rather than the piano in university because of that injury. Roads not taken.)

But, aside from being a Puckish agent of chaos in my otherwise sedate existence, Phillip is also probably a genius. A mutual friend of ours once suggested that he may have the highest IQ of anybody we grew up with. When he takes an interest in something, he obsesses over it, and he possesses an extraordinary ability to learn manual skills. He started building model ships in his early teens, and has since progressed to building them from scratch, with each beam constructed of the same wood as in the ship he’s replicating. One year, he placed in the top 20 of nearly 2,000 cyclists in a 100km race. Some of the riders who placed above him were Olympians. He has become a reasonable homebrewer, with an entire shelf of books on malts, hops, yeasts and brewing techniques. These days, his reigning obsession is photography, a field in which he has professional aspirations. And not just digital photography, like any old hack. Phillip shoots on black and white film, often with a large-format camera — you know, the old-school ones that look like accordions — and he does his own developing.

And he’s been climbing for years. The only topic that overwhelms beer on Phillip’s bookshelf is mountaineering. And since I’m one of relatively few old friends that he’s been unable to alienate with his social eccentricities and extremely high standards for other people’s behaviour, he’s been trying to make me into a climbing partner for nearly as long as he’s been doing it. At last, I relented.

We reached the base of Ha Ling Peak around 3:00 that day. We’d be climbing its steep northeastern face. Phillip told me a fun fact about the peak: it was referred to as “Chinaman’s Peak” until it was changed, shockingly recently, in 1997. Wikipedia tells me that it was first named in honour of a Chinese man named Ha Ling who hiked the southern face in record time. The fact that the locals picked “Chinaman” over the guy’s actual name and it stayed that way for a century says absolutely nothing good about white people.

We schlepped to the base of the climbing route — “the approach,” as the lingo would have it — through the woods that cover the lower part of Mount Lawrence Grassi: the mountain of which Ha Ling is a subsidiary peak. It’s worth noting that Lawrence Grassi, like Ha Ling, was an immigrant to Canada who worked on the railroad and climbed on his days off. However, Mount Lawrence Grassi was never referred to as Mount [insert slur for Italian people], as far as I know.

The northeastern face of Ha Ling Peak is not a difficult climb. Experienced climbers can summit in four hours. So, given that this was the peak of summer and the weather was beautiful, Phillip figured we could be up and down the mountain in time to grab a pint at the local brewpub, catch a few hours’ sleep in the car and head off to the Icefields Parkway for more climbing the next day.

Retrospectively, the mind reels. The northeastern face of Ha Ling Peak is not a difficult climb, but it is still very much a mountain. And when I say I’d never climbed before, I mean I really hadn’t. Not in a climbing gym; not on the smaller rock faces in Whistler, near where I live. Phillip taught me the basics of climbing at the foot of the mountain face. Prior to that moment, I did not know what a belay device was, much less how to use one.

But Phillip was an indulgent teacher and as I scaled the mountain face behind him, gingerly and with immense anxiety, he waited patiently. “People climb at their own pace,” he would occasionally say. But I suspect he was just saying what he needed to say to ensure that this wasn’t the last time I ever climbed. My ego can be delicate. Phillip knows this as well as anybody.

You think that the frightening thing about climbing a mountain will be the height. It isn’t. Honestly, you’re so focused on the rock face directly in front of you that you don’t think too much about the open air behind and below. The frightening thing is the precarity of the footholds. More often than not, you’ve got to make your next step onto a tiny, one-inch strip of rock and just pray that your miserable upper-body strength can keep you stable until your foot reaches a friendlier protrusion, and hope against hope that the chunk of rock you’re holding onto doesn’t come loose in your hand. My snail’s pace was more the result of me trying to psyche myself up to move than any physical tiredness.

But as the afternoon wore on, Phillip began to drop the indulgent facade. “Start making your way up, man. We’re losing light.” I looked around. It was getting a tad dusky. Neither of us had a phone or a watch, so we had no idea what time it was or how long it was taking us to progress. But by the time we reached a small ledge about three-quarters of the way up, the rock around us was beginning to look concerningly featureless in the dimming light. Phillip began making his way up, now wearing the one headlamp we’d thought to bring. I fed the rope through the belay device as he climbed, and I watched him carefully. His face was not a confident face. And when he whispered “fuck” under his breath, he was still close enough for me to hear him, and realise that there was a problem.

“Yeah, I’m not sure I’m cool with climbing this in the dark,” he said, after a rather pregnant pause. You and me, both, I thought.

So. What were our options. There were three of them, according to Phillip. One was that we swallow our doubts and risk it. But even if we did make it to the summit before we lost all the dusk we had — which in retrospect we absolutely could not have managed — we’d still have to contend with the hike down the other side, which involved woods and therefore possibly bears.

So, essentially, we had two options. One was that we could rappel back down the mountain the way we’d come. But that would involve me learning to rappel. And Phillip happened to mention that he didn’t love rappelling in the dark. I sure as hell didn’t want to learn a new skill in a setting where the guy teaching it to me wasn’t even comfortable doing it himself.

So, essentially, we had one option. And that was to park ourselves right there on the ledge where I was standing, and wait out the night. Be it resolved, etc. And then, with an expression of genuine mirth the like of which only Phillip could muster in a situation like this, he exclaimed: “We just got benighted!”

Everything you need to know about Phillip is encapsulated in that moment.

It’s only been a few weeks since all of this happened, but the size and shape of the ledge where we spent the night is already starting to stretch and skew in my memory. When I think about what it felt like to be sitting there, staring down the cliff below, it seems like it couldn’t have been any larger than the desk where I’m writing this. But that’s clearly not true. It was large enough to comfortably take a couple of steps. But it was small enough that in pictures of Ha Ling Peak, it’s an imperceptible speck. Certainly, it was the only place on the mountain where we could have spent the night in (very) relative comfort. I’m awfully glad we got stuck specifically where we did.

Phillip tightened up the ropes, which were firmly affixed to a bolt on the mountainside, leaving just enough slack for us to sit down. I found a stable, trustworthy sitting rock. Phillip is comfortable enough on mountains that he could shift around a bit for comfort. I am not. I sat on that trustworthy rock all night and did not budge. As I sat, watching the sky become dark and feeling my ass become numb, I thought about Glenn and Gianna’s vows. Both had written them independently of the other, and they turned out to be adorably similar. Both sets of vows included the phrase “you are my rock.” I have now experienced the literal iteration of that figurative expression. I recommend sticking with the figurative.

I turned to Phillip as we settled in and commented that none of this would have happened if I hadn’t forgotten my shit at the Calgary Zoo. Funny how things converge.

Seven hours stuck on a mountain ledge probably sounds like a miserable experience. And, there were elements of it that certainly meet that expectation. But before you write it off completely, let me describe what we spent the night looking at. From that ledge, we could see Canmore, straight from one edge of the town to the other. It is no grand metropolis, but seen from that height in the darkness, it twinkles, quaintly. On the other side of the town, directly opposite us, rose another phalanx of grand mountains. We watched trains pass by along the CP Rail that our peak’s namesake had helped to construct. We watched fireworks from 1,000 feet above them. We saw the stars absent of any light pollution at all, and we saw a dozen meteors.

Now the negatives. As the night grew darker, the cliff face below us lost all definition and became a vast, shadowy abyss. For the first couple hours of our stay, every time I glanced down at it I’d feel like it was sucking me in. I gradually acclimated, but it never quite stopped freaking me out. Also, there were two clusters of houses just by the banks of the Bow River whose lights made them look like scary evil eyes. At some point, the night became a staring contest between me and an unblinking light demon.

And most crucially, it was cold. We found out the next day that the overnight temperature was hovering between three and five degrees all night, and like a chump, I hadn’t packed my coat. So, we found a way to spread the one coat we had across the both of us, and we found out what it means to literally have to huddle together for warmth. I have never willed the sun to come up harder than those moments when the wind picked up on that ledge.

I didn’t sleep at all. Phillip did, for maybe ten minutes. There were times, during this longest night of my life, when my brain got caught in a loop, thinking of what the unexpected eventuality might be that would worsen our lot and kill me right there. When the sun finally came up over the mountains across from us, I swear to god I heard Wagner.

It took us less than an hour to climb the rest of the way up the mountain. It took us less time still to hike down. But if we’d attempted to finish our climb the previous night, it may well have been catastrophic, what with my skills being what they were, and bears being what they are. I’ve told this story to a few people since it happened, and many have tried to make me aware of how close I came to death. But frankly, much as I felt like I was going to die on that mountain, my rational side believes that Phillip’s expertise kept us well out of danger. If he’d been truly hubristic or reckless about my lack of experience, he would have hauled me up to the peak that night, and maybe killed me. But, as it stands, we were never really anything more than enormously inconvenienced.

I can’t say for sure whether or not I’ll climb again. But if Phillip has an especially enticing idea, I’ll probably say yes. “Come with me, Matthew, and you’ll go far,” he said.

He does keep his promises.

First posted on Medium.